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December 11, 2013

Ford still draws a crowd





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CLEMSON -- 35 years ago 30-year old Danny Ford made his debut as Clemson's head coach in the Gator Bowl. Young, timid and unsure of himself at the time, the legendary Clemson coach and Ring of Honor member was much more calm and collected as he sat in the West Zone Wednesday to face reporters.

Clemson informed members of the media earlier this week it would make Ford available for questions about the December 29, 1978 game, given that the Tigers are just weeks away from facing Ohio State for just the second time in school history.

The Tigers (10-2), 12th in the AP Poll, 11th in the Coaches Poll, are making their fifth Orange Bowl appearance, while the Buckeyes (12-1), 7th in the AP, 6th in the Coaches Poll, last played in the Orange Bowl in 1977.

Both teams are coming off crushing losses with Ohio State missing a shot at the national title, while the Tigers were dealt another defeat by rival South Carolina.

Said Ford about the Tigers' showing against the Gamecocks in the last five years:

"Certainly we don't like it. I don't think anybody likes it. But there's nothing you can do about it today. You only get one day a year to do something about it."

Ford, who served as Clemson's head coach from 1979-1989, lost to the Tigers' hated rival just three times; a 13-9 decision in Columbia in 1979, a 22-21 setback to the Gamecocks in Clemson in 1984 and a 20-7 loss in Columbia in 1987.

Ford even recalled a bank in Anderson that would wave a banner of the winning team in the rivalry game atop its roof for 365 days in the 1980s.

The Tigers have dropped five straight to the Gamecocks, all by double-digits. The recent futility in the series serves as the only significant black mark on an otherwise impressive run by head football coach Dabo Swinney, who is fresh off his third straight season of at least 10 wins, a feat not accomplished at Clemson since 1988-1990. Swinney also has two division titles on his resume, as well as a conference championship in 2011, the program's first since a team predominantly made up of Ford's players last won it in 1991.

"It's tough. We lost to them some and the worst time was when we just got physically whipped down there one time (1987)," said Ford. "I can still remember it. And our people remembered it when we were coaching here then. It's nothing to be happy about at all when you get beat by them. (Nick) Saban has won three national titles but they're not too happy with him right now."

Ford, a regular at Clemson home games, also has made his way down to Florida the last two trips the Tigers took to the state in the postseason, taking in the Tigers' 2009 ACC championship game versus Georgia Tech where he was honored as an ACC legend beforehand and again in 2011 when he was honored by the Orange Bowl as a member of the bowl's Hall of Fame on the night the Tigers faced West Virginia.

"I don't miss this anymore at all," he said. "I come to the games here and Clemson is very good to me. They provide me with tickets and parking passes. I'm able to go up into the stadium anywhere I want, but I love the tailgating more than anything else, I swear I do. I like to get here three hours early just to see what people are cooking. Besides, a lot of times you can't watch it here. In the box there's eating and spirits and everybody up in the box is a coach."

A bowl win over the Buckeyes would give the Tigers their second victory over a top 10 team this season. It would also mark the program's first-ever back-to-back 11-win seasons.

Asked if the Tigers' recent troubles against the Gamecocks in any way takes away from a string of 10-win seasons and major bowl appearances, Ford answered, "No, it doesn't take away from 10 wins at all because that's a great accomplishment. But it doesn't make you happy. And I'm not speaking for their coaches, but if we had won 10 games and lost to them, we wouldn't have a happy off-season."

Added Ford: "They need to turn it around. Of course the bowl game can get your mind off of it a little bit, but then you go out and raise money and go to IPTAY meetings, that's still important to talk about ... the rivalry. People want to know."

Ford, still the youngest head coach in college football history to ever win a national championship (33), spent most of his 42-minute session reminiscing about his first-ever game as the Tigers' head coach against legendary Woody Hayes, who was ousted within hours after striking Charlie Bauman.

The former Tiger head coach, a longtime local and resident on a farm mostly given to him by Clemson as part of his contract, said he sees the program moving forward in a positive direction.

"Well all except for a couple of games," he said, smiling. "They're doing really, really well now. It's the nature of the beast ... winning 10 games a year. If they were coming into the old Clemson winning 10 games, people would be tremendously happy. But it's not the old Clemson now. It's 'We won 10, but we still lost this one,' or it's 'We've got to beat this one.' But they put themselves in this position (expectations). They earned that right."

Said Ford: "They just have to take that next step forward. And it'll come. You just hope it comes when they're still winning 10 games a year. But it'll circulate again. It's (the rivalry) going to turn. It always has. Nobody can win forever."

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